For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, what’s the most accurate thing someone else has said about it?
Oh, I truly have no idea what the most accurate thing would be. I feel like I’ve developed the literary equivalent of Body Dysmorphic Disorder; I tend not to believe nice things that people say about my work. But if I had to pick a daily affirmation as part of my cognitive-behavioral therapy, it would probably be this recent bit of praise for my new book, The Storm at the Door, from Publishers Weekly: “He masterfully pulls the reader through this heartbreaking story, making readers care deeply about what happens to his characters, as flawed as they are at times. It's this generation's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, all the more horrifying because of its real-world inspiration.”
What have you read/watched/listened to/looked at/ate recently that will permanently change our readers' lives for the better?
The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter, Aguirre: The Wrath of God by Werner Herzog, baked eggs at Bocca Lupo, The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams, The Day After by Sugimoto, Six Point Bengali Tiger IPA, The Sunset Tree by the Mountain Goats, shepherd’s pie at D.U.B. Pies, The XX, coffee at Café Grumpy, The Apartment by Billy Wilder, The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen, any music by Ashley Selett, Elegy by Mary Jo Bang, the lobster roll at Red Hook Lobster Pound, Welcome to Hard Times by E.L. Doctorow, everything bagel at Terrace Bagels, The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins, breakfast (ricotta pancake) at Thistle Hill Tavern, Hiroshima Mon Amour by Alain Resnais, Winter’s Bone by Debra Granik, Made of Bricks by Kate Nash, Cloud Cities by Tomas Saraceno.
Whose ghostwritten celebrity tell-all (or novel) would you sprint to the store to buy (along with a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius so that the checkout clerk doesn’t look at you screwy)?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if publishers could hire some of history’s most famous writers to ghostwrite for our decidedly non-literary celebrities? What We Talk About When We Talk About Jews by Mel Gibson (with Raymond Carver), The Sound and the Fist Pump by The Situation (with William Faulkner), Madame Ovary by The Octomom (with Gustave Flaubert), Their Eyes were Watching Trump by Donald Trump (with Zora Neale Hurston).
Have you ever been a Starving Artist, and did it make you brilliant, or just hungry?
I’m careful not to romanticize the image of the starving artist too much. It is a luxury to have enough comfort and privilege to hand your life over to such an impecunious pursuit. But I also think that any urgency you can put upon your craft—financial, existential, hormonal—presses the better work out of you. I’m better able to support myself now than when I began to write, but I still feel worried about future poverty with the same anxiety with which I once worried about present poverty. And that’s a good thing, I think. Worry is compelling and meticulous. The more I write, the more I feel like worry might be a writer’s most useful tool.
What would you characterize as an ideal interaction with a reader?
The joy of finding myself in another’s work is the main reason I read. When my readers tell me they have found something of themselves in what I’ve written, it feels like the profoundest success. It’s the fascinating paradox that is right at the heart of literature: reading and writing are solitary activities, but they are also what can make us feel the least alone.
Have you ever written anything that you'd like to take back?
When I was in high school, I had a column in the school’s newspaper. It was always rife with my malapropisms and adolescent bombast, and it seemed that everyone mostly ignored it. But, one day, in response to a piece I’d written about “the public school system’s trench-digging educators,” my Physics teacher berated me in front of the class, and then unloaded a rubber band gun revolver at my head. I knew that I shouldn’t have written what I wrote, but the experience was still exhilarating. Each time I saw the rubber band-shaped welts in the mirror, I thought, My God! People read my work!